Why do wedding dresses cost so much?

So he finally asked; you said yes; your parents (or your credit card) have come through with the cash, and it's time to find the wedding dress you've been waiting for all your life!

You're looking in stores, online, you're calling dressmakers, and there are a few ideas you like the look of.

But wait - how much?

1950s wedding outfit by Harman Hay, 2006
1950s wedding outfit by Harman Hay, 2006

This is ridiculous. You know clothes. You've been buying clothes all your adult life. Clothes don't cost this much. What a rip-off! This isn't just expensive, it's verging on criminal! And everyone's doing it! You can't win!

Woah there, girl. Wedding dresses are more expensive than you're used to, yes. But this isn't just the result of a mercenary industry profiteering from your childhood dreams.

Wedding dresses can come from one of two sources. They're either mass-produced (many of the same dress are made in a factory) or they're individually made by a dressmaker you've hired. Let's look at both of these options.

Gold corsetted 18th century style wedding gown, made to order by Harman Hay, 2005
Gold corsetted 18th century style wedding gown, made to order by Harman Hay, 2005

Manufactured wedding gowns

When you walk into a regular bridal store, you'll find racks of wedding dresses made by a range of designers. The owner of the store is making her living from it. She's paying rent on her store and all the other costs associated with retail, and yet there aren't nearly as many brides buying wedding dresses as there are women buying clothes. She has to charge more to make it work, so she has marked up each dress by 100% or so. In other words, half of the price you're paying goes to the store.

The dresses came from design companies where a designer is paid to come up with each season's new look. These few looks must be taken to shows and promoted to the bridal stores in the hope that our bridal store owner will buy - trust me, this costs big bucks! Again, these companies aren't making as many dresses as, say, Banana Republic or Next, so each must cost more so that everyone can still pay the rent.

And somewhere, perhaps in the Third World, there are some women sitting at sewing machines making a few pennies a day making your dress. They get the least of all. (Spare a thought particularly for the lady who must sew beads onto your wedding dress - this cannot be done by machine.)

Edwardian style wedding gown custom made by Harman Hay, 1997
Edwardian style wedding gown custom made by Harman Hay, 1997

Hiring a dressmaker

Have you tried asking a dressmaker for a quote? If she knows what she's worth, your ears will have melted on hearing the price. Many dressmakers try to compete with bridal stores, but they're doing themselves a disservice. A great custom made wedding gown should cost thousands. But why?

The easiest way to explain is to use food (bizarre as it sounds!)

Katie decides that she wants to go out for dinner tonight. She has a choice of places to go. She can go to a local restaurant and select what she wants from a menu. The chef has prepared most of the dishes in advance, and he simply needs to heat it up, add the finishing touches and out it goes.

(This is a lot like buying a wedding dress in a store - you find something in the store that you like, they make a few adjustments and you're good to go. This works for most people.)

But what if Katie's very particular? Actually she wants a specific meal (whether or not it's on anyone's menu), tailored to her personal dietary needs and her taste with just the right amount of seasoning, just as she likes it. It's an important meal, the most important of her life perhaps (ok, now I'm stretching the metaphor) and she wants it done right by a true professional. Nothing can go wrong.

She's going to have to hire a professional chef. How will the price of hiring him compare to the price of a spaghetti bolognese at Mario's around the corner?

Now you're getting the picture!

"The Black Pearl" gown by Harman Hay (2007), based on a dress worn by Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean
"The Black Pearl" gown by Harman Hay (2007), based on a dress worn by Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean

A dressmaker or couturier will design a single gown just for you. It will have every detail you heart desires. A unique pattern will be made just for you, and the fabric will be bought at retail price (your dressmaker won't be needing hundreds of yards of your particular choice of creamy, slightly pinky-blue silk satin, so wholesale isn't an option.)

While hundreds or thousands of store dresses are cut at once with a huge machine in the factory, your dressmaker will cut each piece of your unique gown individually with scissors. She will work out how to put it together and go through that process step by step. The "Black Pearl" dress that you see here took over 70 hours to make; the gold corsetted one further up took around 140 hours to make. (How much are you paid for a month's work?)

The ironic thing about the price of a wedding dress is that however expensive it seems to you, no-one on the other side of the fence is rubbing their hands with mercenary glee.

Most ironic of all, the skilled dressmaker or couturier will charge a lot for your gown, yes, but after all the fabric is bought and the sewing machine is paid for and so on, when she spends 120 hours making your gown how much does that work out at for her, overall, a skilled craftsperson with a long career and much expertise?

In my experience over the last twelve years, a dressmaker makes between $6-$14 per hour. Trust me, no-one's ripping you off!

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Comments 14 comments

milca weule 7 years ago

Thank you for you comments about the price of wedding dresses. I am a Dressmaker and a good one but I found so difficult to charge for all the horas that I expend doing fittings and construction and details.

I wish all my future clients read this site.

Thank you


Arianna 7 years ago

Yes I also thank you. People do not understand how much time one puts into just one dress. Yet they still rather go with the million dollar dress that is ridiculously simple. Instead of actually getting the dress of there dreams made by a professional. Every dress I make is very special to me.


DebbieL profile image

DebbieL 7 years ago

thank you for sharing this incrdible pictures


Karen 7 years ago

Fab article and it hits the nail right on the head!!

We dressmakers spend hours on dresses to make them perfect for our lovely clients, we become friends with them, we become their confidant. A great dressmaker will know you well by the time your dress is finished and she will be sad to see you go.

You are paying for her love of your dress and her fabulous skill to make you your one of a kind ... it is worth every penny.

Thanks so much :)


fagun mendes 7 years ago

I have to sew beeds like a necklace on a brides gown 4 inches below her bust, 6 inches wide infront and 1/2 inch like a V right upto her waist. How much should I quote?


cathy_hay profile image

cathy_hay 7 years ago Author

I'd say you should charge for the dress, then charge for the beads as an extra - in other words, by putting the two prices separately she won't be as likely to run away screaming. :D

Charge for beading by the hour, and explain to her how you've come up with the total so that she knows you're doing it fairly. Here's how:

1. Time how long it takes to sew ten beads onto a piece of fabric. Let's say, for example, it takes you half an hour. (You could even show her the little sample you've done.)

2. Then estimate how many beads you'll be sewing on altogether. You could do this by measuring the area that 10 beads cover and the area of the whole finished beading section. Let's say the whole area is about twenty times the size of the little 10-bead section you've done.

3. If it takes half an hour to sew on 10 beads, and the area you're covering is twenty times that, then the whole time it'll take you is going to be about 20 x (half an hour) = 10 hours.

4. Decide how much you're going to charge per hour - you're doing skilled work, so don't you dare charge minimum wage!! I would recommend charging £20 per hour, which is about US$30, because this is skilled work that is hard on eyes and hands. Over a career, too much handsewing will result in health problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, so you need to keep it to a minimum and charge wisely. 10 hours x $30 = $300 on top of the price of the dress.

This does sound like a lot, but if you're completely transparent and talk the bride through your reasoning, you should be fine.

If she decides it's too much, since you've explained it all you'll be able to work together to either reduce the amount of beading or change the design so it fits her budget. Good luck!


Wedding Invitation Designs 6 years ago

Well wedding dresses are very intricate designs and I don't think their costs should really be questioned. Most designs are well worth the money. Plus the memory lasts a lifetime.


6 years ago

How many hours does it take to make a wedding dress from scratch ?


cathy_hay profile image

cathy_hay 6 years ago Author

Hi there T, good question. It depends on who you ask, how complex the dress design is, how difficult the bride is to fit, how difficult the fabric is to work with (one word: velvet) and how much care the dressmaker takes.

One of the dresses you see above? I usually expect to take 120-150 hours purely for the sewing. That doesn't include meetings and fittings, designing, sourcing materials, chasing payment and miscellaneous other admin tasks. Then again, last year I made a dress that took about 500 hours, but that was embroidered all over. Thanks for asking!


YaRight 5 years ago

Wedding dresses cost that much because you will pay that much. Simple as that. If the average dress maker makes between $6 and $14/hr then at $14 an hour for a 140 hour dress (17 days) that's a labor cost of $1960, so for these $10k-$30k dresses the rest is material sourced from unicorns I guess. It's all markup folks, they cost that much because you will pay it that's all.


cathy_hay profile image

cathy_hay 5 years ago Author

You're right, Yaright - my dresses cost in the single thousands, and there *are* also $10k-$30k dresses out there.

Your accusation can be true of the big businesses - there's a reason Vera Wang can afford a big store in Manhattan and the back cover of Vogue, and the price is part of the exclusive image - but I want to draw a line between that kind of excess and the one-woman show.

Specifically, the price alone isn't necessarily the deciding factor on whether it's a rip-off. I recreated an antique Edwardian gown *covered* in hand embroidery in 2009. It took six months. I did it as a publicity stunt, but if I was to make it for a client, we're talking $20,000. Not $20,000 to pay for my fancy store and national magazine advertising, but $20,000 of hand sewing, six hours a day, five days a week, for six months.

Look at the price, but importantly, look at where that money is going - look at what you're paying to allow the dressmaker/business to do. Is it going on handwork done in the home on your dress, or is it paying for Vogue to advertise it and for [insert celebrity name] to wear it for five minutes?


Leisa 4 years ago

Love this article and thank you so much for writing it. I am going to link it to my website so all the girls who query my right to charge for my valuable skills can read it themselves.


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 3 years ago from California

Splendid article. Thank you for reminding us of the work in making a wedding dress. The pictures are exquisite.


Bluet 2 years ago

Thank you so much!

I have been recently ripped off by a customer that after I did the design, patterns muslin and fitting, half of the work as we all know) changed the budget therefore trapping me on finishing this dress for almost nothing .

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